Future food and protein trends in China

As a leading R&D provider of consumer and sensory science for the food industry in New Zealand, Plant & Food Research's Tracey Phelps, Client Liaison, Consumer and Product Insights, takes a deep dive into consumer behaviour of one of the fastest-growing markets in Asia: China

By embedding themselves amongst thousands of Chinese living in affluent cities and using focus groups, surveys and interviews between 2015 and 2017, researchers gained important insights into China’s cultures and attitudes towards protein, fresh food and food gifting.

Chinese food culture is a strongly established tradition. Sucai (vegetable dishes) and huncai (meat dishes) are considered to be the basic elements of any meal. They do not substitute for each other but are complementary. Therefore, a sudden shift towards solely plant-based diets is not expected … but increasing affluence means that Chinese consumers are trading up to healthier, higher integrity options.

Not all protein sources are created equal to the Chinese. Animal-based products were perceived as being key sources of protein by 2000 survey respondents. Fish/seafood and dairy are ranked the highest, followed closely by bean curd, mock meats (largely consumed by the Buddhist community) and legumes. Fruits and vegetables, although not seen to provide protein or the energy and satiety associated with protein-rich foods, are valued as a rich source of fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Chinese consumer attitudes to meat are shifting, mostly regarding weight management and better health. Almost 40% of the respondents stated that they are eating less meat overall. It is notable that the biggest reduction is seen in pork — in a country that consumes the most pork in world — but it shouldn’t be assumed that the reduction of meat translates to a reduction in all animal-based protein.

Approximately 30% of the consumers are eating more dairy and fish/seafood. Around 60% of consumers report that they have increased their consumption of fruit and vegetables.

When presented with a range of novel food concepts that replace meat with plant-based ingredients or combined plant-based ingredients and meat in a fusion product, Chinese consumers showed a huge appetite to try something new. More than 50% of the consumers are interested in trying “meat protein alternatives” as long as it is not from insects.

As fear of fraudulent products is very high and 42% of the respondents stated that they seek foods that are better for the environment, credentials and assurances that signal authenticity, food safety and sustainability are strong purchase motivators. This means that foods produced in foreign manufacturing systems that are perceived to be clean, safe and sustainable.

Food gifting is huge

Gifting is an important element in Chinese culture as the practice is deemed to help secure future need — to signal a desire for assistance in the future. Thanks to a booming economy and rapid social change, the practice is rising in frequency and value. The convergence of key trends in diet, food safety and health/wellness, plus a thirst for foreign brands, means that imported food is riding this wave, topping the list of most commonly purchased gifts.

Two thousand online survey participants described relationships in two categories: an inner social circle (kinship or friendship-based), such as parents, friends and colleagues, and an outer social circle (interest-based), including employers, clients, doctors and teachers. Almost all respondents said they had gifted to their inner circle in the previous 12 months. Although gifting to the outer circle was less frequent, the value of gifts was much higher.

Chinese consumers see food as an ideal gift: 98% of the respondents said they had bought food as a gift during the past 12 months and 93% reported half or more of the gifts that they had received were food. Usefulness and ease of sharing were the most commonly cited reasons for gifting food. The ideal food gift is healthy and nutritious, well matched to the receiver’s taste, supported by good “word of mouth” and from a strong brand.

Imported foods have built-in gift appeal because Chinese consumers rated imported food highly for taste, quality, packaging design, expensiveness and scarcity. Respondents quoted style, safety, novelty and “classy” as key attributes that underscored their perceptions that a gift of imported food shows greater respect and sincerity than giving a local product. Seventy eight per cent of respondents agreed that “fully imported food has more face value if chosen as a gift.”

Fresh food habits

Five factors influence fresh food choices in China: health, occasion, freshness, supply and safety. Understanding these factors is crucial for global food companies trying to tap into the lucrative market. Consumers identified health as one of the most important factors when choosing food.

Traditional wisdom is very influential when deciding what’s healthy and what’s not. As mentioned above, Chinese consumers have a strong belief in balance and moderation — you need a little bit of everything to ensure rich nutrition and to promote health. Family also influenced perceptions on health, as consumers felt strongly that kids or grandparents needed to eat healthily. Consumers do read the ingredients listed on packaging, but they are highly influenced by the latest news, TV shows and word of mouth from friends.

Lunch used to be the main meal, followed by dinner, but urban lifestyles are changing this. Preparing the main meal involves more energy and time, and family members get together for a sit-down meal. The classic full meal at noon is only possible if the meal preparer has a traditional profession and a long break at noon (2–3 hours) with a short commute, usually within smaller cities. In larger cities where the lifestyle is faster, commutes are often long and lunch breaks are shorter: dinner thus becomes the main meal.

Freshness is the most important criterion for consumers when buying ingredients for their main meal.

They believe fresher products are tastier and more nutritious. Many consumers will go the extra mile to purchase fresh products. Consumers have a very strong preference toward products grown naturally (without any chemicals) and have a strong aversion towards products that are not seasonal as they believe non-seasonal products use unnatural planting/farming methods.

Consumers have preferred ways of shopping for specific products. Consumers prefer meat fresh — recently killed in the wet markets — but will purchase refrigerated meat from supermarkets if they can’t find the cut they want or the quality is poor. Consumers generally avoid frozen/processed meats. Leafy vegetables have to be purchased fresh on the day. Seafood is most often purchased alive from specialist markets. However, dried or salted seafood is also acceptable.

Chinese food safety scandals involving manufacturers using low quality, fake and toxic ingredients in products have led to heightened attention to food safety among consumers and a lack of trust in the local food production system. Consumers do not know what ingredients are put into the foods, what manufacturing process is used, how the product is distributed and whether what is communicated is true.

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Therefore, consumers have more confidence in products that are 100% fully imported and comply with foreign evaluation standards from big and well-known brands that have a long and untarnished history (and are endorsed by trustworthy third parties). Global food manufacturers or marketers can take advantage of these factors to make their products more appealing to Chinese consumers.

The above snapshots provide a better understanding of the behaviours and attitudes of Chinese consumers relative to the food and beverage products that they consume. These learnings are part of the ongoing consumer research effort by Plant & Food Research.

Its Consumer and Product Insight Group has also studied Chinese consumer attitudes towards a host of other food, health and nutrition-related areas including infant nutrition, metabolic, digestive and immune health, as part of the New Zealand National Science Challenge, High Value Nutrition.